Cuts to frontline services in our city were not something the local electorate voted for in May 2015.
We can do two things in this situation: protest with a placard from the sidelines or look to minimise the impact of these cuts according to Labour’s values of fairness and social justice.
One of the most difficult things about being in local government at this present time is having to implement decisions that in your heart of hearts you personally struggle with.
The decision to cut Brighton and Hove City Council’s budget by a further £45.5 million over the next three years was a political decision taken by Conservative ministers in Whitehall. It wasn’t a local one.
The area that I am politically responsible for – children’s services – must find over £3 million in cuts over the same period. That’s inevitably going to entail reductions in service levels that will hit the front line in some guise or other.
Unlike adult social care spending there is no fillip of the additional 2 per cent precept on council tax that can be added without recourse to a local referendum.
So, despite the national Tory obsession with austerity, it has fallen to a competent and credible Labour administration locally, led by Councillor Warren Morgan, to find the required savings. That includes in my own area of children’s services.
At the full council meeting in February, some service areas saw budget cuts of 30 to 40 per cent. In children’s services the corresponding figure was 9 per cent.
In other words, we are doing our level best as an administration to protect what we spend on the city’s 50,000 children and young people.
We are doing so because it is money saved in the long run that matters most. Heartless cuts to early years and social work interventions now will only come back to bite the city later on in poor educational attainment and higher youth offending rates.
It’s not good enough to know the price of everything, but the value of nothing.
The Labour Party in office has always sought to invest in human potential. We don’t treat people like they are inconveniently on the wrong side of a profit and loss sheet. We leave that to the Conservatives.
Reforms to the working practices of council-run nurseries were considered too difficult by the previous Green Party administration.
In the budget council meeting this year the Conservatives tabled amendments that resulted in financial protection for grass and verge clipping in predominantly their own wards.
With the Greens abstaining, to pass a legal budget by the deadline, minority Labour needed the Conservatives’ votes.
Unfortunately, that budget process included the decision to end the public subsidy to council run nurseries of £460,000 by 2020.
That’s the decision the officers of the council have a legal obligation to deal with and implement.
The irony is that if the Green Party had co-operated with us, instead of sitting on their hands, we could have significantly reduced the impact on council-run nurseries and other key public services. But grass cutting won the day.
Having been dealt this hand, there was only one decision left to Labour politicians. Do we privatise the council-run nurseries and let the new owners undertake the task of workforce reform? Or do we keep them in public hands and deal with any legacy issues ourselves in terms of inefficiency?
We opted for the latter because we can see that the council-run nurseries operate in some of the poorest parts of the city.
I have no doubt that staff at these nurseries do a brilliant job. Our nurseries are rated good or outstanding by Ofsted, which means that some of our most disadvantaged kids are getting the best possible start in life.
I believe that keeping these nurseries in local authority hands will help us continue with that mission.
The staff should be under no illusion, we value the work that they do and we want to keep them working in local government for many years to come.
Over time, however, some inefficient practices have taken hold. It would not be appropriate in an article like this to single out specific examples.
But there is no doubt that we are not employing enough apprentices. We are paying some staff at a higher grade when the actual job required (compared to similar nurseries) is at a lower grade.
And we could be organising our shift patterns better so that they fit in with the busy lives of parents and carers that depend on us.
None of these changes have to compromise quality or inconvenience the workforce. It would be churlish not to recognise that many outstanding nurseries operate in the private sector too. It is greater efficiency that we seek, not some race to the bottom.
We will listen very carefully to what the workforce represented by their trades unions tells the administration about the real impact of these planned savings and proposed reforms.
That must include any changes to pay protection policy agreed after the cut-off date of (Friday) 1 July.
Indeed, by the time we get to budget council next February, we may even be able to secure cross-party support for a reinvigorated early years strategy for the city: a strategy that must surely include properly rewarding the excellent contribution of our very hard working council nursery staff.
Councillor Tom Bewick is Labour member for Westbourne and chairs the city council’s Children, Young People and Skills Committee.
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